Review: Horror film ‘Annabelle’ unable to capture terror of predecessor

Theatrical poster for "Annabelle." (New Line Cinema)
Theatrical poster for “Annabelle.” (New Line Cinema)

If you saw 2013’s excellent The Conjuring” you probably remember the doll that Annabelle is titled from and based around. She was the fairly creepy doll introduced in the first scene of The Conjuring” that established the real life demon hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. The doll suitably creeped out audiences without doing much, setting the minimalist tone that endeared “The Conjuring” to audiences, and then was cast aside after the two minute intro for the main plot.

“The Conjuring”’s runaway success made it ripe for spin off, so now we have “Annabelle,” a film that is unable to capture the terror, tone, and fun of its predecessor, and ultimately falls under the weight of the fact that the doll is never scarier in this entire film than it was during the first two minutes of “The Conjuring.”

The plot of “Annabelle,” much like the film before it, is nothing novel. Set in the late 60s John and Mia Gordon are expectant parents in suburbia when John buys the eponymous doll. Doll becomes possessed by demon. Demon haunts new parents through doll. Textbook stuff, but this could have also been said about “The Conjuring” which was able to sell a plot that has been done to death through impeccable execution.

This spin-off was not directed by James Wan (“The Conjuring,” Insidious,” Saw”) but instead by John R Leonetti. Leonetti was the cinematographer on “The Conjuring” as well as most of Wan’s other cinematic horror pictures. However, this is only the third film his directed, the others being a direct to video sequel to “The Butterfly Effect” and the second being “Mortal Kombat:Annihilation,” which hold the distinction of being the only movie I’ve ever turned off halfway through because it was so bad. So walking in, the film could go either way.

To Leonetti’s credit, the film looks fantastic. It visually captures the look of it’s time period, and features many of the horror inducing camera tricks that Leonetti has honed with Wan over the years, adequately selling the claustrophobia of it’s environments. It looks like it’s part of “The Conjuring.” The problem is however, it only looks like the “The Conjuring.” It lacks the charm, novelty and nuance of its predecessor.

The cast is woefully small. While it focuses on the Gordon family, John (Ward Horton) is oddly absent, and the Gordon baby obviously doesn’t contribute much, so the brunt of the film is carried by Mia (Annabelle Wallis). Wallis is a capable actress and plays scared very well, but unfortunately she is given very little of a character to develop and the film simply cannot be supported by that character. Two minor characters are introduced, a priest (Tony Amendola) and a neighbor, (played by the woefully underutilized Alfre Woodard), but are painfully underdeveloped and don’t get farther than the tropes they already play into. A few other characters are introduced, then never seen again. Ed and Lorraine Warren are briefly mentioned, but never seen.

But all of this can be forgiven if “Annabelle” delivers in the scare department, and unfortunately, the film simply doesn’t. With the exception of an elevator scene, there isn’t anything here that wasn’t done first or better by “The Conjuring” or “Insidious.” About halfway through, it seems that the director picked up on the fact that the doll of “Annabelle” isn’t scary enough to carry a movie, so it is paired with a demon manifestation that looks like a weak reject from “Insidious.” The whole film reeks of familiarity, but not in the good way. The ending comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. It’s not cryptic, it simply doesn’t work.

What I, and many other fans of “The Conjuring,” had hoped for was a continuation of the real life paranormal adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren, perhaps even a revisiting of the Amityville haunting that they were directly part of. Instead, we’re treated to a spin-off that is never able to get off the ground, finding itself rather immobile and lifeless like the dolls it so desperately wants to be scary. If you’re looking for scares this Halloween, I suppose you could do worse, but you could do much better.

Rewatch “The Conjuring” or track down the excellent documentary “My Amityville Horror” that introduces you to the real life Lorraine Warren and Annabelle — who is actually a Raggedy Ann doll. There have been worse films, and the film does show a few occasional points of horror and originality, but in scares, “Annabelle” was simply better and scarier as a side story.